Two years ago I went to AWP for the first and (so far) last time. The experience was an amalgamation of good people, great times, boring stuff, and confirmations. When I got back, I wrote a piece about one of the elements of the conference that left a lasting impression: the readings. Now, I think it’s time to revamp that piece and publish it again. Like the first time, I expect it to piss a lot of people off, but I also expect it to find new readers that go “Damn straight!” Also, I’ve expanded it a bit with the stuff I’ve learned by doing readings these past two years. Ready? Let’s get to it.
Most Readings Suck. Here’s How to Fix It
Unimaginative. Dull. Yawn-inducing. Uninteresting. Incredibly monotonous. Painfully boring. Exceedingly awful. The kind of shit that makes you grab your phone and cycle through the same three or four apps while you quietly pray for a message, a notification, any merciful something that might pull you from the place you’re currently trapped in. You can use any of those words and descriptions and still fall short of accurately describing the mind-numbing, un-fucking-believably tedious bullshit I had to put up with when I went to AWP in 2016 (and a few other times before and after). You see, I received my reading education at the School of Bizarro (aka BizarroCon), and thus consider readings a chance to perform my words in a way that hopefully sends people running to buy my work. For me, reading equals performing. When I read, I want to take over, to become the universe of those listening to me. I want to scream at you and kill you and kiss and fuck you and make you smile and make you cry and tattoo myself in your soul and brain until we’re all ash blowing over the monolithic ruins of some future alien civilization. Sadly, most of the readers I witnessed at AWP, and a large percentage of those I’ve seen/heard outside BizarroCon, were apparently trying to get me to grab the nearest sharp object and quickly jam it into my jugular as many times as possible. Maybe the MFA crowd operates differently after all, but what they’re doing is definitely not working. Luckily for boring readers everywhere, I’m a nice guy when I want to and have decided to give you all ten tips, in no particular order, on how to keep people from yawning, checking their phones, leaving, and contemplating suicide while listening to you.
10. Be aware of the implicit contract of a reading
When you do a reading, the event is between you and the audience. Don’t forget about them. When I go to a reading, I’m giving you a chunk of my time. I’m not reading, hanging out with a friend, writing, or watching a movie; I’m there watching/listening to you. Don’t fuck around with my time. Most authors are convinced readings are all about them. They’re wrong. Readings are about everyone involved, and you should respect everyone equally. When I read, I think about everything else those folks listening to me could be doing, and I make sure they have a good time as a thank you. I seriously believe more folks would come out to readings if more readers made them truly entertaining experiences.
9. Time is a thing, fuckface
Five to seven minutes. That’s usually what you get. Appreciate it if you get more and hustle faster if you get less, but respect the other readers and your audience. Every time a reader is given seven minutes and ends up reading for 18 minutes, I want to put kittens in a blender, freeze the resulting pulpy mess, and then beat the reader to death with the frozen kitty innards. Your damn phone has a stopwatch. A friend in the audience can give you cues. Whatever. The point is, you need to respect time constraints. Play by the rules. Scream, cry, stab yourself, vomit all over the audience, flip a fucking table, bring up some demons from hell and have an orgy…but remember you have five to seven minutes to do it. If you don’t respect everyone else’s time, I don’t respect you. Also, get to know a thing called pace. If you have seven minutes and make four-second pauses between sentences, you need to speed things up.
8. A two-line bio will do the trick
Don’t give the MC your fucking resume, you arrogant piece of shit. Seriously. Some of the readings I went to in LA had the MC reading for three minutes just to introduce a writer. A reading takes place in the here and now, so keep past stuff to a minimum. If you blow me away, I will remember your name and Google you’re ass later. Then I can read about your pieces in The Cloud/Flower Review or the flash fiction piece you once published in some blog. I don’t need to know you edited your high school paper or that you like long walks on the beach. I care about you now, not about every damn anthology you’ve been in, your seven chapbooks, your blog, your Twitter stories, your agent or lack thereof, your first published story, your…just stop. Let your reading do the talking.
7. Keep intros to a minimum
“This is a short story I wrote about my friend Jenny. I wrote it two years ago. We were living in a tiny apartment apartment on…” Fuck you! Get to the reading already. We’re on the clock, remember? If you waste four minutes introducing your damn story or poem or telling us about the way your novel finally came to be published, you’re basically sabotaging yourself. It’s easy: the MC introduces you, you get up, maybe you say hi and thank folks for being there, you read, you rock, you sit down. Anything outside of that is a waste of everyone’s time and you’re an asshole for doing it. The time you get includes everything you do. You don’t get to crack jokes and tell stories for ten minutes and then read for seven. Don’t do that.
6. A little thing called inflection
Okay, so here’s where I mess with the MFA crowd again and then get all the hate for it. I don’t care because the truth is more important than your opinion of me. Here’s the deal: apparently most MFAs have a class that teaches writers to read in the most monotonous, hushed voice possible. It’s as if modulation, accents, passion, and natural rhythms are frowned upon. I have an accent, but I own that shit. Joe Lansdale has an accent, and he owns it and uses it. Brian Allen Carr yells until the hair in your arms stands at attention. Carlton Mellick III turns into a beast. Laura Lee Bahr has a million voices. Rios de la Luz becomes la voz de la raza. Kevin Donihe erupts like a supernova every time he reads. Just like these folks, I try to read in a way that forces people to remember it, to remember me and my voice. Let your voice take off like a rocket. Let is soar and crash back down. Let it shatter like a bird made of glass against a brick wall. Let it carry your story and change with your characters. Make sure the guy in the back hears you. Make sure the lady checking her phone because the previous reader was putting her to sleep hears your voice and looks up. I don’t care where you’re from; go back to doing what you’re ancestors did around a fire a very long time ago and tell a story that captivates your audience. Scream, motherfucker!
5. Your body is a tool; use it
Just like your voice, your body is a tool, a wonderful prop that can make your reading reach the next level. Move around. Use your arms. Let your hands tell your story alongside your voice. Standing there with your feet together like Dorothy getting ready to click her heels is just not gonna cut it. Dance around. Get on top of a seat like MP Johnson does. Walk away from the mic. If you walk up to the mic, look down at the piece of paper/cellphone in your hand, and then read a story in that monotonous voice almost all readers use, you’re boring us to death even if what you’re reading is great. And if boredom is what I remember when they mention you, I won’t be buying your book.
4. Learn to read the audience
Not every reading will be the best one of your life, so learn to read your audience and adapt. If you read a decapitation scene (I love reading those!) and no one leans forward, you got a tough crowd. If you crack a joke and it bombs, move forward quickly. Keep moving, feeling the crowd, paying attention to how they react to certain words. Some crowds will laugh at a story about a guy eating a rotting fetus, but other crowds will call the cops on you if you say fuck twice. You know what you’re reading, but learning to adapt, to speed up or slow down or accentuate certain words, can become a powerful tool in your reading arsenal.
3. Make eye contact
You wrote the thing, reread the thing, and then read it a few more times while editing. You don’t need to keep your eyes glued to the damn thing now that you’re in front of a crowd. Folks are looking at you, so look back at them. You’ll be surprised how much more engaged they feel when you make eye contact with your audience.
2. Remember why you’re there
It’s okay to be nervous. It’s okay to feel a bit scared. However, treating readings like a chore is not okay. You’re there to read something you wrote because you needed to share it with others. That’s your chance to do that. If you keep that in mind, it’ll be easier to overcome your nerves. I’m tired of readers treating readings like a damn chore. Go ahead and do the Pynchon hermit thing. If that works for you, great. If, on the other hand, you need to be out here connecting with people, don’t act like it sucks, because it doesn’t.
1. Leave no ass unkicked
Passion. That’s the word you need to focus on. Be passionate about what you’re reading. If you sound like you’d rather be at the dentist than reading your work, how the hell am I supposed to feel about you and your words? Passion doesn’t guarantee sales, but it guarantees a good impression. Fuck fear. Don’t hesitate to be funny or to cry or to show that what you wrote makes you feel vulnerable. Every reading is a war: you against yourself, against fear, against the audience’s need to check Facebook or reply to a text, and against the quality of other readers who may have put them to sleep or raised the bar. Tackle all of it with passion and abandon. Your job is to leave a mark and your reading is your only weapon. You need to entertain, to make a new fan, to show love to those who may have read your work before and are there to support you. Blow them all away. Leave no ass unkicked. Anything else is just not good enough.
Hey, I still love y’all. 🙂
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of ZERO SAINTS (Broken River Books),HUNGRY DARKNESS (Severed Press), and GUTMOUTH (Eraserhead Press). His reviews have appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, 3AM Magazine, Marginalia, The Collagist. Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, Out of the Gutter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, HorrorTalk, Verbcide, and many other print and online venues. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias